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Above: The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle that appeared in the Godey's Lady's Book, Philadelphia in December 1850


The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle that appeared in the Godey's Lady's Book, Philadelphia in December 1850


The following are contemporary reference sources courtesy of Lee Jackson’s The Victorian Dictionary https://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm:

“CHRISTMAS LONDON” chapter in Living London by George R. Sims, 1902

Leisure Hour, 1863

“HINTS ON ARRANGING THE DINNER-TABLE” chapter in Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s [no date]

“CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS OF THE HOME” chapter in Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s [no date]

An introduction by T.G. Campbell: As we’re entering the festive season I wanted to include something light-hearted in my blog this month. Given Lady Katheryne Owston’s usual occupation as a freelance journalist for the Truth and Women’s Signal publications, in addition to being an active member of the Bow Street Society, I thought it apt to write a piece from her point of view regarding the ‘perfect Christmas’. Enjoy!

“…a bold and effective device for a large space, as, for example, the end wall of an entrance-hall or landing. The cross-pieces are stout sticks, the size of which must be regulated by the space intended to be filled; and it will be found advisable to join them in the centre by a cross joint, otherwise they will be very awkward to manage. They can then be wreathed with holly and mistletoe, as shown in the figure. The legend surrounding them is made of letters in gilt paper, pasted on to coloured cardboard, and the figure of the robin is cut out in cardboard and painted.” 

December is the most delightful time of the year! It’s certainly my favourite, in spite of the colder weather drying one’s skin. The shops are at their best, the streets are filled with holiday people, and one is given a pleasant time simply by walking around London during those crisp, dry days before Christmas to see what is to be seen.

Miss Agnes Webster, my ward, and I oft spend the day of merriment with our dearest of friends—after church on Christmas morning, of course. After all, one mustn’t forget the true meaning of the day. Alas, the ‘dearest friends’ of which I speak aren’t my fellow Bow Street Society members. Although the suggestion of a festive gathering of us all was put forth to Miss Trent she declined due to concerns about our future safety. In her words, we ‘can’t put one another in danger if we’re unaware of who one another is’. Wise words sadly received. Let us not dwell on those, however! For this is the season of goodwill to all men—and ladies—and I refuse to be melancholy!

Decorating the home

There are many facets to the perfect Christmas, beginning with the adornments for one’s residence. To those new to such things it’s recommended to keep it simple. Homemade is best as it implies great pride in one’s home. It also allows one to bring the freshness and uplifting joy of nature inside. The lush and varied greens of Ivy, Laurel, Yews, Arbor Vitae, Myrtle and Box are particular favourites at this time of year. The following is a perfect example of a simple—yet impressive—homemade adornment courtesy of Cassells Household Guide:

~ T.G. Campbell, December 2019

Arranging of the dinner table

The laying out of one’s table depends upon the circumstances surrounding the meal. It’s recommended to limit its contents to what is needed rather than what is desired. Vegetables may be placed on a nearby sideboard to utilise the space on one’s table. This isn’t always preferred, though, as it increases the need for attendance at table and the frequency of requests for the various dishes to be brought to one. If one is able, then, it’s recommended to lay the various components of one’s meal on the table so they may be easily passed around by one’s guests.

This includes the joint of meat to be served. Prior to it being served, though, one must assign a carver to dissect the meat for one’s guests. The carver should be supplied sufficient space to carve, hence the utmost importance of having a well laid table. The joint of meat to be carved must also be placed on a large dish so as to avoid gravy spillage. The knives supplied to the carver for the task must also be sharpened prior to the meal. It is both irritating to the carver and indicative of poor household management for the knives to be sharpened before the guests at table.

Additional adornments—such as tall floral arrangements and raised silverware—which are pleasing to the eye but serve no true function within the meal’s duration should be avoided. They prevent one’s guests from meeting eye-to-eye whilst conversing and thus interrupt the flow of overall interaction. Candelabras—though they oft serve a practical function on the dining table—should also be removed for the same reason, if possible. Cassells’ Household Guide further recommends that “linen, and the knives, forks, spoons, &c., should, of course, always be scrupulously regarded … The napkins, when used for the first time, should be neatly folded, enclosing the bread, and afterwards brought to table in rings.”

If one adheres to the advice and recommendations described above one may be assured of a pleasant Christmas with one’s nearest and dearest. One must also be keenly aware of the plight of those less fortunate than us during this festive period. Charity isn’t limited to Christmas but it’s a time when we may all be at our most charitable.

Miss Webster, the Bow Street Society, and I wish you the merriest of Christmases. For at Christmas we must play and make good cheer for Christmas comes but once a year.

Once the perfect tree has been secured and brought home, one must then set to the task of adorning it. Candles are often used as representations of stars. Yet, though their light brings wonderment they remain a danger to one’s home. One must therefore be sensible in their application by ensuring each candle is affixed to a shallow clay holder. This, in turn, must be affixed to a heavy, clay ball suspended from its underside using dense wire. These balls act as counter balances to the additional weight created by the candles’ melted wax. They may be painted gold, green or red to complement one’s other adornments. Never should they be foregone altogether, though, if one wishes to avoid setting one’s home aflame.

Decorating the tree

Since 1841, when His Royal Highness Prince Albert brought it into Windsor Castle, the humble tree has become a much loved centrepiece of the British Christmas. Covent Garden is recommended for the acquisition of one’s fir-tree, along with one’s holly and mistletoe for the adornments described above. It can’t be more emphasised that timing is crucial when selecting one’s tree. Acquisition many days before Christmas increases the likelihood of having a bald tree come the day. Yet, acquisition on Christmas Eve decreases one’s options amongst the tree-seller’s stock. It’s therefore recommended to engage with the tree-seller at Convent Garden to take advantage of his expertise in the days prior to one’s intended date of purchase.

Lady Katheryne Owston